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Arizona Nurses Are Burned Out As The State Faces Another COVID Surge

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One in every 400 people in Arizona has died from COVID. The state faced two major surges last summer and winter, and now there's a third one. Health care workers there are exhausted. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Katherine Davis-Young reports.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: In Arizona, the pandemic is political. Governor Doug Ducey and the Republican-led state Legislature have banned mask requirements and vaccine mandates. The state had some business restrictions in place during the prior two waves, but Ducey has resisted that kind of measure this time.

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DOUG DUCEY: People should use common sense and be responsible. And for so many, the vaccine is available.

DAVIS-YOUNG: But statewide, COVID ICU bed use increased 300% throughout July and August. In the 12-bed COVID ICU at Valleywise Health Medical Center in central Phoenix, each patient is sealed off behind a glass door, sedated and covered in tubes and wires. Nurses wear face shields, masks and full-length gowns. Nurses Sara Reynolds, Jeremy Neagu and Ken Neal say this unit was empty a few months ago.

SARA REYNOLDS: We're tired. We don't want to do it again.

JEREMY NEAGU: It's a lot. It's heavy.

KEN NEAL: This whole thing is just tragic.

DAVIS-YOUNG: The more aggressive delta variant of the virus makes patients deteriorate more quickly, and recent patients are younger. Jeremy Neagu, whose five o'clock shadow is visible under the surgical mask he wears all day, says in Arizona's first waves, ICU patients tended to be in their 70s or 80s.

NEAGU: This wave is - like, we had that 24-year-old die today. We've had a couple of 30-year-olds, a couple of 40-year-olds. I mean, it's just crazy. And they've all been unvaccinated.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Less than half of Arizonans are fully vaccinated - well below the national average. For Sara Reynolds, the nurse manager here, that's frustrating.

REYNOLDS: This wave, I feel like it's hard. It's hard because I feel like it can be prevented.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Ken Neal starts talking to me before I even ask a question. He's frustrated, too, patients like one who he treated recently have bought into misinformation about the disease.

NEAL: The first thing he said was, where am I, and what am I doing here? When she said, you have COVID, he said, oh, COVID's not real.

DAVIS-YOUNG: These nurses want Arizonans to take the pandemic more seriously. But outside the hospital, Reynolds says she feels like life is just back to normal.

REYNOLDS: It's like nobody cares anymore.

DAVIS-YOUNG: She says she feels like health care workers have been left to fight the virus alone. But many hospitals in the state are short-staffed. This one's been down more than 20 nurses per day recently. Jeremy Neagu.

NEAGU: They've been giving us bonuses and stuff to sign on extra here. They've been picking up travelers. It's just you can't keep up with just the flow of patients coming in.

DAVIS-YOUNG: After a year and a half, it's not just the number of patients coming into the ICU that's taking an emotional toll on these nurses. It's the number of patients who never get to go home.

NEAGU: I mean, we've already had two patients we've lost today. And it's 1 o'clock.

DAVIS-YOUNG: COVID-19 has killed nearly 19,000 Arizonans. Neal says people become nurses because they love to be able to help people, but with a virus this deadly, that's often not possible.

NEAL: We want to be that nurse we were two years ago.

DAVIS-YOUNG: He shows me a slip of paper he keeps folded in the pocket of his scrubs. It's a list of reminders he's carried with him throughout the pandemic.

NEAL: I tell myself every day, it's not always about me. Everything is not in my control. Everything is not for me to fix personally, and - sorry - it's not always my fault. Sorry.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Before COVID, in more than 20 years in the profession, Neal says he'd only ever had one of his patients die. Now, he says he's lost count.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.